Jackson (1980) stated that:
‘It is a common fallacy that deaf people do not enjoy the theatre, or even music; often this avenue offers a marvellous means for deaf people to express themselves in their own language’ (p.286).
There has been a long tradition of deaf people creating, performing and having careers in the arts. As Jackson describes above it is a misconception that deaf people only engage with some artistic forms due to their deafness. Moreover, a deaf person can bring a unique experience and sensitivity to an artistic form, not to mention the visual joy of BSL as a creative and expressive language in its own right, creating unique practices such as signed songs and poetry. Therefore, when we refer to deaf arts we are referring to the full range of artistic forms including: theatre, physical movement, dance, mime, storytelling, magic, music, painting, signed songs, photography, film, video, animation and digital art.
Deaf art within the deaf community in Scotland goes back many years. Drama has always been a popular activity amongst deaf people since the first school and social club came into existence. Those groups created their own shows and entered in competitions. The winners of these competitions would then go to the National Drama Festival at British Deaf Association Congress or Conference, to perform and on some occasions bring the winning prize back to Scotland.
Deaf performers in the 1970s – 1990s took part in hearing theatre festivals like the Edinburgh Festival. For example, ‘Truck Call’ in 1989 or stories about deafness, ‘Gary’ in 1990. This would often be the first time hearing and deaf audiences would see a deaf person on stage. Throughout the decades other deaf performers have performed at festivals although this is often the exception to the rule and recently there has been debate about how to better integrate and promote deaf performance art within hearing led festivals, including a conference on the subject led by the Deaf Heritage Collective. This led to the inaugral Edinburgh Deaf Festival at Deaf Action in August 2022.
Over the years there has also been special events where deaf people from London or around England would bring theatre road shows to a delighted deaf Scottish audience. In 2016 the Deaf Hearing Ensemble, a London based theatre company brought their play, People of the Eye to the Edinburgh Festival.
Starting around 1990, more interpreters were provided for mainstream theatre also pantomimes that gave access to theatre performances within established venues such as The Citizens Theatre in Glasgow. Since then, other festivals have also started to provide interpreted performances such as the International Children’s Festival in Edinburgh as well as some online digital content including National Theatre of Scotland online digital Panto, Rapunzel, in 2020.
Other organisations over the last 20 years have also been established to support the development of deaf performers including Solar Bear theatre company established in 2002. Solar Bear have also been running Deaf Youth Theatre since 2008. The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in partnership with Solar Bear launched the BA Performance in British Sign Language and English course in 2015 where deaf people can study acting/performance. This has provided a new generation of deaf artists who are not only looking to create new work but also challenge the industry and mainstream audiences.
It is important to recognise that deaf people’s involvement is more than theatre. This includes Evelyn Glennie, a famous Scottish percussionist who listens to her music through her body; photographers and filmmakers including Scott Campbell and Will Clark who established, ‘Glasgow Photo Walk’ club and Facebook group; BSL poetry written and performed by people like Leah Francisco and up and coming dancers like Jia Mackenzie.
The fact is, deaf people love storytelling, using BSL – it’s visual, unique and brilliant to watch.
There is also visual vernacular, a highly physical theatrical form that uses body and expression to tell stories. One of the most successful visual vernacular artists is Scottish based Singaporean artist Ramesh Meyyappan, also Scottish performer, Brian Duffy.
Will there be enough opportunities for deaf artists/performers in the future?
Will there be enough understanding about accessibility, quality of access and consultation with the deaf community/deaf performers within the wider arts sector?